Given smaller teams’ impact on F1’s current grid, they still matter

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A fascinating piece penned by veteran F1 scribe Nigel Roebuck for the U.K.’s MotorSport Magazine out today addresses the root of the problems facing Formula One at the moment, and outlines how some of the decisions over the last six or so years have led to the current state of affairs where Caterham and Marussia are off the grid and others have been rumored to be in financial peril.

In looking through the remaining 18 drivers on the grid, it is interesting to note where each driver got his starting point within F1, and note how few have done so at the immediate top of the grid:

  • Sebastian Vettel, BMW Sauber (1 race), then Toro Rosso
  • Daniel Ricciardo, HRT (now defunct)
  • Nico Rosberg, Williams
  • Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
  • Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber
  • Fernando Alonso, Minardi (forerunner to Toro Rosso)
  • Romain Grosjean, Renault (forerunner to Lotus)
  • Pastor Maldonado, Williams
  • Kevin Magnussen, McLaren
  • Jenson Button, Williams
  • Sergio Perez, Sauber
  • Nico Hulkenberg, Williams
  • Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber
  • Adrian Sutil, Spyker (forerunner to Force India)
  • Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso
  • Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
  • Felipe Massa, Sauber
  • Valtteri Bottas, Williams

As you see, Williams (5 drivers) and Sauber (5) tie for the most of the 18 with a combined 10 drivers getting their careers started there. Sauber has been the perennial midfielder, and that’s not a negative – Peter Sauber and later, Monisha Kaltenborn, have excelled in their talent-spotting ability.

Williams, while one of the most successful teams in Formula One history in terms of Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships, has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the last 20 years. At no point when Rosberg, Maldonado, Button, Hulkenberg or Bottas debuted for the team was the Williams one of the top two or three cars on the grid. Button’s initial sojourn was BMW’s first go-’round in 2000, and was a learning year for both parties before the Williams-BMW package won its first races in 2001.

But in looking through the remaining eight, you still see midfield teams as the rule, rather than the exception, to being the place of launching driver careers. Ricciardo, Vergne and Kvyat are all part of the Red Bull empire, and two of the three have graduated into the top Red Bull squad – Vergne, the exception, is hanging on to his F1 career.

Alonso began with the forerunner to Toro Rosso, Minardi, and is the lone Minardi graduate still active in F1 today. This is the team that also launched the career of Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli among others, all of whom went onto become Grand Prix winners.

Sutil began with the Force India forerunner of Spyker, and now races with Sauber, even though he hopes his contract will still be honored next season. Sutil is a rare perennial midfielder in modern day F1, a driver who has held onto a career making the most of his circumstances without being in one of the top three or four cars on the grid – much like his countrymen Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Heidfeld, for instance.

Grosjean has been with Renault in two forms – both as the factory Renault squad and now, as Lotus. In 2012, he fought to save his reputation while in 2013, armed with a podium-contending car, Grosjean was a star of the second half. But as the team has regressed, so have Grosjean’s results, but his talent level has not changed.

It is only in the form of Hamilton, who has been in nothing short of a race-winning car all years bar one (2009, and even then, he still took two wins with a difficult McLaren chassis) and Magnussen, this year with a McLaren that has ranged anywhere from being the third-to-fifth best chassis depending on the circuit, who have made their debuts in what you would call immediate podium-contending equipment.

Even in looking at Caterham and Marussia, there’s few within F1 who doubted Jules Bianchi’s star on the rise in his time with Marussia – he seemed destined for a Ferrari seat. Sadly, his Suzuka accident has left him fighting for his life, rather than fighting for a top seat on the grid. We continue to wish the best for him and his family – #ForzaJules.

Teams you don’t see anywhere on that list? Manufacturer outfits. Whether Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda, BMW or Toyota, none of the drivers who are racing for Ferrari and Mercedes or raced for any of those manufacturers who have since pulled out as a factory entry (Honda returns in 2015, but as a power unit supplier) made their debuts with a manufacturer operation. It’s very interesting to note.

The overview of the grid and where the drivers – plus the countless mechanics who’ve all started with the smaller teams as well – is all important because one of the keys to talent discovery in F1 is finding people who can outperform their machinery level once they’ve made it to F1.

It’s why most of the aforementioned drivers are in their current seats; they have long flattered their machinery and thus made themselves more valuable to a Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and/or Williams/Lotus down the line.

If down the road there’s a further team reduction to where it’s nothing but top teams left, and third cars become de rigueur, F1 risks losing this semblance of its history. While there’s something to be said for young drivers having an opportunity in top-flight machinery from the off, it seems to mean more if they work their way up and then eventually make it to a top team, rather than being gifted the opportunity straight away.

It’s one of the fascinating elements that makes F1 so special, and this can’t be overlooked as the future progresses.

The midfield matters, because the current grid wouldn’t be what it is without those launching pads.